Since writing 168 Hours, I’ve had to hone my message into talking points. One that has gotten a surprising amount of pick-up is the “rule of three” for weekends (and workdays, too, but we’ll get to that).
Here’s the idea. When we have full-time jobs (or school schedules, or what have you), our free time during the workweek comes in short spurts. So we tend to view the weekends as these open expanses where we can conquer the world, or at least the laundry. But then it’s Saturday morning, you’re trying to figure out what to do and hey! Did I just lose half a weekend day already?
Many of us go one of two ways on weekends. Some of us lose vast hours in front of the television. TV is fine in small doses, but one of the most fascinating things I discovered in my time use research (in Chapter 8, for those who’ve read the book) is a 1-10 scale of human enjoyment that was created as part of a 1985 study. Basically, people ranked how much they enjoyed things on a scale from taking the car to get repaired to sex. TV was somewhere in the middle. Fun, but not as fun as playing sports, going for walks, experiencing art or music, playing with kids, talking with family members, etc. The problem is that most of that takes effort, while TV does not, so TV tends to win out, even though a weekend of it leaves us feeling unsatisfied.
The other trap is turning weekends into a death march of chores and children’s activities. We spend hours doing laundry, repairing things, cleaning the kitchen, doing lawn work, etc. Then it’s back to Monday and our other work. Where’s the fun in that? So here’s the rule of three for weekends: plan three meaningful, enjoyable things, beyond life maintenance, that you intend to do on the weekend. There will be different for everyone, but could look like this:
• Go for a run, have date night dinner, go to church
• Volunteer at food bank, meet friend for coffee, go for a family hike
• Visit an art museum, take kid bowling, go for bike ride
• Go to a birthday party, have a picnic, do weight-lifting session
Now, obviously, one of the issues for parents of older kids is that they have their own activities, which can start getting complicated (if you have three kids practicing their own rules of three, this makes the parents have a rule of nine before they get to the fun stuff!) As much as possible, we can try not to overcommit our kids, and we can also try to include them in family activities, so there are overlapping threes (for instance, volunteering or bike riding or going to church with your family). Enroll them in activities with kids whose parents you like, so these can be fun for you too (e.g. soccer practice becomes a chance to go for a walk with a friend). I actually really like kids’ birthday parties, because that accounts for a big chunk of my social life these days!
But anyway, the rule of three gives us a few planned activities to look forward to. Three is enough to make a weekend feel full but not over-committed. Three is also a small enough number that you’ll actually do these things. If you aim for 10 things, you’ll get overwhelmed and not get to them all and then feel bad. Three is doable, with plenty of fallow time left over.
Incidentally, this works for workdays too. Choose your three most important professional priorities, knock them out early, and then if the day gets away from you, you’ve still done work that matters.
A version of this post appeared on Laura Vanderkam’s website where she writes about strategically managing time between her work and family.